Lemberg Gallery, Ferndale, Michigan, May 9 – June 21, 2008
The stories we tell ourselves, and the mythic proportions they assume, are so much of what drives us: wealth stems from diligence; I live in the greatest country; Dad is impossible to please; money is the root of evil; government is just; no one liked me in high school; prayer leads to salvation. Roland Barthes famously drew attention to the idea of myth as a mode of communication, not an entity in itself, in his 1957 essay, “Myth Today.” What makes something mythic, he wrote, is social usage. He made the case that it is not myths that are troubling, but our ignorance of their mighty, often shadowy, presence.
Painter Mark Fox brings this idea forcefully to mind. His elegant constructions, at once grounded and celestial, wrestle with belief systems, bits of information, materiality, and the slippery links connecting them. They capture the fragmented ways different kinds of facts and impressions can infiltrate a psyche, dwell there, and exert an unacknowledged but powerful (read: mythic) force.
He draws from two apparently opposing sources: the Catholic Doctrine of the Assumption of Mary, and the fragments of information and sensation randomly encountered every day. For a piece titled “Binding Forces,” he copies a typically grim passage from the Doctrine in florid calligraphy:
Let them clearly know and understand that they stand condemned by their own judgment; that they have made a shipwreck of their faith, and have fallen from the unity of the true church.
Fox cuts out the individual letters, uses pencil to color them in Easter hues (soft orange, pink, green, yellow), and attaches each one to a long wire. The work suggests a blasted apart, carefully reconstructed, towering floral bouquet. The sentence, replicated and decontextualized, is reconfigured into something buoyant, airy, whimsical; its new structure subverts the dogmatism and severity of the Church’s original message, and underscores some of the whacky assumptions presented to (or perhaps more accurately forced upon) its congregation as certainties.
His second type of source material is the environmental and cultural clutter encountered in his studio, sometimes, but not always, by choice: news stories, to do lists, phone messages, mail, street noise, reading material and traffic. He makes copies, in drawing and painting, of these individual things, often following a set procedure, such as reading a book and stopping to render each noun (both the letters, spelling out the word, and the image that the noun represents). He cuts out various words and images, organizes the tiny, tricky pieces of paper, and tapes them together from behind (in the case of a sculpture) or affixes them to a larger sheet.
“Conflated” is made up of two hundred, two-inch pieces of paper that are meant to represent, in part, the blank pages of an unfinished studio sketchbook. To make them, Fox uses every writing implement he can find in his work area (pencils, pens, markers) to draw two-inch frames on a sheet of paper, which he then cuts out in horizontal sections, also cutting out the middle, which is empty in the way an actual frame is. He takes the multiple drawings to the gallery and pins each piece to the wall, forming a bulging structure that brings to mind an open field, a thought balloon or a shelter. Yet the intricate paper and pin construction is extremely fragile; the slightest gesture could rip it from the wall and destroy it, which would throw the last interpretation, the notion of a protected space (mental or physical), into question. This undermining of the illusion of things safe and secure, a psychological defense mechanism we indeed need to survive, calls to mind similar mythic delusions: fated vessels promising safe adventure (Titanic, Hindenburg), or structures falsely offering refuge (Katrina victim’s herded into the Superdome). The work ultimately probes: what combination of truth, falsity and things in-between occupy our mental space; what, ultimately, constructs our ideas?
The juxtaposition of hallowed religious texts with unremarkable, apparently randomly encountered stimuli raises provocative questions about the differences and similarities between the two “modes of communication.” The first exists as a traditional, centuries-old entity that, to its adherents, constitutes truth; the second appears to be haphazard, yet it is the result of concrete economic and social forces. Both forms of information are generated by power structures. Fox’s consideration of the ways systems and objects collude to function as conceptual landscapes jam-packed with overt and buried assumptions we unconsciously accept as true, seems to be telling us, Pay Close Attention to What Forms You. Or, to quote Jules Verne, “Look with all your eyes, look.”